South Africa: a bad way to treat fellow Africans! The plight of Somali refugees living in South Africa has been especially heartrending in a country bristling with xenophobia. Since 1997, 470 Somalis have been killed in South Africa. So what is President Mbeki's government doing about it? Pusch Commey reports.

Author:Commey, Pusch

What have we done to deserve all this?" Mohammed Abdi laments. As the coordinator for the Somali community in South Africa, he has been inundated with endless cases of Somali refugees getting the wrong end of the stick, for no apparent reason. "Where are the democratic values so well entrenched in the South African constitution?," he complains. "They say South Africa is for everybody who lives in it. Is it really true?

The refugees have been gunned down, robbed, assaulted and abused. Their houses and shops have been ransacked and burnt down. It is not getting any better with the passage of time.

The plight of Somali refugees living in South Africa has been especially heartrending in a country bristling with xenophobia. They have become easy pickings for a frustrated South African underclass hunkered down by apartheid's hangover of violence, black poverty, division, envy and distrust.

As the economic powerhouse of the continent, South Africa is a magnet for immigrants from the rest of the continent seeking a better life. It is Africa, and thus an attractive destination for Somalis fleeing years of conflict and resultant economic hardship.

Abdi talks of schemes where Somalis are ferried across the continent and abroad by unofficial "travel agents" for a fee. There are cases of Somalis being arrested and harassed at bush-path borders in other African countries such as Kenya, Zambia, and Tanzania.

The quest for a better life has often degenerated into a life worse than before. With their well-documented history of clan wars and a collapsed state, they are immediate candidates for temporary asylum in South Africa. They are not confined to camps. The country's Refugees Act allows them to live and work while their applications for permanent refugee status are considered.

Inside the country, their communal system and Muslim faith has worked for them. For refugees arriving in a country where job opportunities are limited and unemployment runs wild, most have little choice but to start up their own businesses in the informal sector.

Their background of survival through informal trade serves them well. The idea, Abdi says, of a venture where refugees assist other refugees is an extension of the "tribal-based system" in Somalia where everyone is a member of one or other "big extended family" or clan that pools money together.

It is not very different from the black South African philosophy of Ubuntu. But in a South Africa caught in the stranglehold of...

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